It can be overwhelming in early sobriety when it comes to trying to prioritize your recovery efforts. Where do you even begin to rebuild your life from scratch? It’s a difficult challenge to be sure.
First of all I think it is especially important in early sobriety to realize that your number one priority is total and complete abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances. So this includes alcohol as well as any other addictive drugs that are mood and mind altering. For whatever reason this does not seem to include caffeine and nicotine, although those can be both be considered addictions in their own right. It is rather complicated though because those two substances do not seem to reactivate the core addiction that makes alcoholics drink or drug addicts seek out hard drugs.
So this has to be the number one priority in any alcoholic’s recovery, in my opinion. They must make a pact with themselves that they are not going to drink or use addictive drugs, period. Total abstinence has to be the most important thing in their life. They must put this as being more important than anything else, including their own higher power. Nothing can be more important than their abstinence.
The logic behind this is pretty simple. Without abstinence, they have nothing. Their life is destroyed. This is the basic truth that every alcoholic and drug addict has to confront and come to terms with.
This is the foundation that you build the rest of your sobriety on top of. Without this foundation everything will crumble. Without a foundation of total abstinence none of the changes that you make in your life will be cumulative. In other words, you might make some progress while you are still drinking or using drugs, but that progress will quickly be erased or completely negated by losses in other areas of your life.
The only way to prevent this back and forth cycle of madness is to completely abstain from all drugs and alcohol. You have to establish this baseline if you want to build anything positive in your life.
So this is perhaps the most important point to think about when it comes to prioritizing: Don’t use drugs or alcohol no matter what. Total abstinence is the key if you are to make any real progress. Any further discussion of priorities in recovery are useless without first realizing that the entire thing is based on total abstinence. Never forget this!
Self analysis and finding your biggest problems in life
So after you realize that total abstinence is the foundation to a better life in recovery, you are ready to get to work. Changes need to be made and before you can make any changes you need to make an assessment of what is going on with your life.
There are several different ways that you can do this. For example, you can work through the 12 steps of AA with a sponsor and that will involve some self assessment. Or you can work with a therapist or a counselor and talk about your life issues. Or you might even simply meditate and reflect on what is negative in your life right now.
No matter how you go about doing this, the important thing is that you actually “do the work.” In order to do that you really have to take the time and the effort to analyze your life. If you fail to do this critical step then you can’t improve your life and your recovery efforts will hang in jeopardy.
We are either moving forward in recovery or we are sliding backwards. The only way to move forward is to make positive changes. In order to make those changes we need to have a clear idea of where we are really at in life. And in order to have this clear idea we need to be honest with ourselves and take a long hard look at our lives.
Self assessment is therefore a necessary part of personal growth in recovery. It is all about getting honest with yourself and taking a closer look at your life.
Why you need to eliminate the negative stuff before chasing your dreams
This is a bit counter-intuitive.
Most people believe that they should “focus on the positive” rather than to dwell on the negative. Sounds reasonable, right? Focus on the positive stuff?
Unfortunately it is also wrong. We don’t get much personal growth in recovery if we ignore the negative things.
So here is the path to true growth: You have to look at the negative stuff in our lives. We have to find the problem areas. We have to find the “pockets of unhappiness” and then eliminate them. We have to find those character flaws (as outlined in the AA steps) that cause us pain and misery and grief.
Why do we have to do this? Why not just focus on the positive, and let that negative stuff take care of itself?
There is a good reason for this. The reason is because we all have these negative things going on in life (especially during addiction) and if we try to ignore them and focus on positive things they will stick there like a thorn in our side.
You can keep chasing happiness and try to focus on positive things in life but you will never be truly happy if you have a thorn sticking in your side. And this is why we have to do self assessment and then “do the work” in order to eliminate the negative stuff. Because those things will drag us down and keep us from realizing true happiness. If you have a bit of unhappiness in your life then it overrides any happiness you may stumble upon.
So there is this idea that you can either:
1) Chase your dreams, focus on the positive, or
2) Identify your problems and the negative stuff and try to fix it.
And what I am telling you here is that you should focus on doing number two first. Focus on the negative stuff. You can chase your dreams later.
I know that sounds discouraging in some ways but it is absolutely a solid path to happiness. You cannot chase your dreams and be happy if you have all of these thorns in your side.
And this is where the major return is in recovery. This is where you get the greatest “bang for your recovery buck.” It is in finding the negative stuff, finding out your problems, and then fixing them one at a time.
This is how you “do the work.” This is how you heal your life.
Therefore, this is another important concept in terms of prioritization.
So now we have:
1) Your main priority is total abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances.
2) Self assessment, find the negative stuff in your life and fix it.
If those were your only two priorities in recovery and you worked very hard at both of them then that would be enough. This would make you happy. But it’s hard work, and most people don’t like the idea of getting honest with themselves and doing hard work…
Internal and external changes
Recovery is all about change. You make changes for the better. Turn negatives into positives.
We can separate those changes into two categories if we like: Internal and external changes.
Internal changes would be things like guilt, shame, anger, fear, resentment, self pity, and so on. All of the negative stuff that goes on inside our heads. The internal stuff.
Then there are external changes. People, places, and things. Going to an AA meeting instead of hanging out at the corner bar. Doing coffee with friends in recovery rather than hanging around your old drinking buddies. And so on.
It is tough to prioritize these changes but I would say that you need to hit the external changes very hard at first. One easy way to do this is to check into rehab. When you check into a 28 day treatment center you are making all sorts of external changes automatically.
But obviously you are not going to remain sober for very long if you don’t really hit the internal changes immediately as well. You can’t walk around with massive resentment or fear and expect to stay sober. It just doesn’t work. So it can be difficult to prioritize one set of changes over another.
That said, you can still prioritize. For example, here is one way that a struggling alcoholic might prioritize in early recovery:
1) Decide to get clean and sober. Surrender. Ask for help.
2) Take advice from friends and/or family and go check into rehab.
3) Start living in recovery, one day at a time. Start finding support in AA, through peers in recovery. Leave treatment, go to AA outside of rehab, find sponsor.
4) Start doing the work. Self assessment. Work with a sponsor, with a therapist, or with both. Identify biggest problems.
5) Identify biggest environmental triggers. Identify people who are bad influences. Make changes accordingly.
6) Continue to do therapy, counseling, and/or sponsorship. Identify biggest problems internally and come up with a plan to eliminate them.
So all of this can easily happen within the first 90 days or even within the first 30 days of sobriety.
And so it can be overwhelming and it can all sort of be happening at once. Recovery is like that. Roll with it and make positive changes and your life starts to get better.
At any given point in your recovery, you have to ask yourself the question:
“What is the one change that I could make next that would have the biggest potential impact on my life and on my recovery?”
For me, I asked this question of myself at various times in my life.
At one point the answer was: “Get sober, go to rehab.” So that was my next action. It was obvious at the time. No other change would have been as beneficial to me at that time.
At another point in my recovery the answer was different. It was “Quit smoking cigarettes.” That was the biggest potential change that I could make at that time.
And another important point here is that you will not always be able to figure out your next action all by yourself. In fact, I can assure you that in many cases you will benefit tremendously if you have additional insight and wisdom from other people.
This is why talking with others is so powerful. This is why sharing our experience in recovery is so powerful. It is a shortcut to wisdom.
For example, I went to my sponsor at one point and said “what should I be doing next with my life?” And the answer was “go back to college now.” I was already sober, stable, working a job, had good relationships, and so on. So he looked at my life and he made an assessment and he said “you should go back to school.” So I took that suggestion and I followed his guidance.
The same thing has happened in other situations. With quitting smoking, for example. Someone suggested to me when it was time to make that move. Of course people had told me in the past to quit, but someone who really knew me sat down with me and looked at my journey in recovery and said “It’s time now, you can do this, this is your next step.” And so that sort of feedback and guidance is a bit different than the usual stuff that we might hear. It is more targeted, more intimate. And this is just another way that we can help each other in recovery, to guide each other and give feedback based on our own past experiences.
In other words:
If you don’t know what your priorities should be in recovery, ask someone.
Ask lots of people. Seek advice and feedback. Listen to others. And judge them based on their outcomes, their experiences, their own life. Are the people giving you advice happy with their life? Are they sober and healthy and happy? Those are the folks you want to listen to when you are trying to prioritize what is important.
Establishing your daily practice in order to build a better life
Our priorities define us.
Rather, our daily habits define us. What we do every day determines the sort of person we become.
Wherever you are at in life right now, what you did every day for the last five years has a whole lot to do with that. You built your current station in life, one day at a time.
And so we have this multiplier. The unit of time that we call a “day” is our multiplier.
Because we can take a new habit and we can practice it every single day, and then over time that habit can multiply into something very powerful. It can accumulate.
This is what addiction is as well. Maybe you drink and abuse alcohol every single day (that was a big part of my addiction). And so over time those daily effects added up. They added up to a lot of chaos and destruction and misery. Each day was another nail in the coffin, so to speak. Each day was an opportunity for something bad to happen. And it just kept piling up.
Recovery is the opposite of this. You still have the same day to day existence, you still have the opportunity each day to create something new in your life. But in recovery the idea is to take all of that negative stuff and replace it with positive actions.
Then it builds. It compounds over time. It multiplies.
This is how recovery works. It is simple. And yet it is difficult to grasp how your tiny positive actions each day will accumulate over time.
For example, about a decade a go (maybe a bit less) I started to exercise on a regular basis. When I started doing that I had no idea how the benefits would multiply. I had no idea that it would be so beneficial. I had no idea that it would create such a powerful impact on my recovery, or that these benefits would continue to grow over time.
But it did. The benefits of daily exercise have accumulated over the last decade. So it has led me to a better quality of sleep. Who would have predicted such a benefit? I sure didn’t. And yet, I definitely sleep better and more consistently today as a result of my exercise.
This is why the holistic approach to sobriety is so difficult to explain to others. There are a million connections and positive benefits when you use a holistic approach that are not necessarily easy to measure or convey to others. It is difficult to describe just how the holistic approach to recovery works because so many of the benefits are intertwined with other benefits in complex ways.
Another great example is with quitting smoking. I actually started exercising just as a strategy to make it easier to quit smoking. Talk about a win-win situation. And after doing that for a few years, I realized that I had to eat healthier foods in order to push myself further with the exercise. And so you cannot necessarily predict what benefits and rewards will unfold before you in recovery when you start to take these positive actions.
Quit drinking. Quit doing drugs. And then look at your life and say “what’s next? What is the next healthy change I can make? What else can I do to eliminate negativity? What else can I do to become happier? Healthier? How can I help other people?” And so on.
This is how you prioritize in recovery. And you don’t have to rush. You have plenty of time in recovery. Sobriety lasts a long time. The rewards of this stuff just keep coming, so there is no need to hurry. Your life will get better and better if you are making positive changes every day.
The day is your multiplier. What are you doing today to improve your life? Your health? Your recovery?
The daily practice becomes the answer to that question. The routines that lead you to better health. Not just physical health either, but also spiritual, emotional, social health, and so on.
My daily practice has to do with exercise, but also with reaching out to others in recovery, writing about addiction and solutions, and so on.
And my daily practice continues to evolve.
I am often saying “are my priorities in line with my real values?” How can they change for the better? Should I be focusing on something else today?
And then watching where that line of questioning leads me to. So I can continue to grow, to improve, to seek a better life in recovery.
Sometimes I get lazy and stop asking the question of myself. But then I talk to someone else in recovery who gets me on the right track again, gets me excited about potential growth, gets me thinking about new changes I need to make.
I’m not always good at pushing myself to find more potential growth. But my life keeps gently reminding me.
At least the reminders are gentle these days. In the past that was not the case.
And this is yet another gift of sobriety. You still have problems, but they are so much better than they used to be!
What about you, what are you problems like in recovery today? And how do you prioritize those problems? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!